The Newly Born Mother is Not Imprisoned in Motherhood
“Stories of Formidable Women”: The Handless Maiden
In our folktales, there are numerous examples of the patriarchal violence that women could possibly experience. “The Handless Maiden” is a record of survival of a woman who experienced horrible abuse from her parents. The reader cringes at the scene where the father chops off his daughter’s hands with a straw cutter. The reason that this bloody story has continued to live on until today is because the violence within our family system has not disappeared.
There are three mothers in this cruel story.
“Long time ago, a man was widowed after his daughter was born. When he remarried, his new wife harassed the daughter.” (Story told by Kim Eum Jeon of Daegu in 1983, Complete Works of Korean Oral Literature)
The first mother that appears in the story is the heroine’s stepmother. In many folktales’ depictions of a stepmother, the focus is not on the fact that she is not the biological mother. Rather, she often reveals a different face of motherhood. A mother provides her own bodily fluid, her milk, and serves as the first “other” with whom we share our most intimate bodily secrets, including feces and urine. So every human being’s first love is directed towards their mother. A child, who cannot survive alone, entrusts its very life to its mother through its love. However, a mother is not solely available for the child. She has many different faces. She’s the weak person under a patriarchal family system who is held entirely responsible for nurturing and caregiving in the duty of motherhood. At the same time, she is also a monster that uses terrifying violence in the name of motherhood. This complex and confusing character appears in our folktales [mostly] as stepmothers.
“When the [step]mother observed, ‘For some reason, she’s really good with her hands. That really won’t do,’ she told the maiden’s father, “If you want our family to live well (...) we need to chop off her hands and put her out of here.”’ (Story told by Kim Eum Jeon).
“After catching [the rat] and peeling off its skin, she put it under the daughter’s skirt (…) and said, “Since she’s old enough to get married, it seems like she committed adultery and got pregnant [and miscarried].” (...) So one day, the father (…) sharpened the blade of the straw cutter (...) and said, “There is no such thing in a yangban’s family. You little bitch, put your hand here.” (Story told by Oh Soo Young of Gyeonggi-do in 1982, Complete Works of Korean Oral Literature).
The responsibility and authority that a yangban [aristocrat] family’s madame inherited from the patriarch is the surveillance of her [step]daughter. In a more class-based society, lower-class women are sexually exploited and upper-class women are sexually restricted. A yangban’s daughter cannot stand out from the crowd nor have sex appeal. If there is an ‘unfortunate’ incident with the surrounding men, including family members, the young woman’s body is always the subject of punishment. ‘Strictly teaching’ the daughters of the house is necessary for a family with a name, so the mother brings in the patriarch’s blade to make sure the daughter does not use her hands freely.
“The maiden was hungry (...) When she looked up above the wall (...) there were big pears hanging down (...) So she climbed up the wall and (...) took a bite of one, let it fall, took a bite of another one, let it fall, and so on.” (Story told by Oh Soo Young)
The abandoned daughter who was hurt irreversibly by her own parents cannot find a way to communicate with the world around her and instead climbs a wall like a hungry animal. She uses her teeth instead of her once-dexterous hands and bites everything she finds, but her hunger does not go away. It only produces damaged fruit just like herself. She then falls helplessly into somebody’s hands.
“As the scholar in that house was reading out loud (...) he saw that she didn’t have hands. Neither of her two hands. So he grabbed her arms, and (...) he took her inside. He hid her in his closet and closed the doors. (...) At night he slept with her and during the day he fed her and then hid her. A month passed like that (...)
So his mother spoke (...) she combed and braided [the maiden’s] hair, washed her face, changed her clothes and even put makeup on her. Then she let her and her son get married.” (Story told by Kim Eum Jeon; all quotations below are also from this story).
The protagonist chooses extreme passivity as a mode of survival. In return for her sexuality, she eats what she’s fed and stays when she’s held. She does not initiate anything in the relationship. From the outside, it seems like her strategy has worked: a runaway girl finding her place in a patriarchal family system as a daughter-in-law in a wealthy family. However, in such an extremely lopsided relationship, the warmth provided by the powerful is not something to really rely on.
“The young man went to take the gwageo (...) Almost after a year (...) she gave birth to a son who was beautiful like a mooncake. [The young man’s] mother was so happy (....) and wrote a letter to her son in Seoul.
‘Hey, hey, since you left (...) she gave birth to a baby like a mooncake. Hurry up and pass the gwageo, and come home soon.’
(...) The mailman fell asleep at the tavern and the tavern owner [took out the letter and changed it to this] (...)
“Oh my goodness, hey, hey (...) she gave birth to a round strange thing with no eyes or nose. What should we do?”
(When the young man received the letter, he thought), ‘Oh, has my mother changed? Even if the baby’s a round strange thing she wouldn’t talk about it like this.’ So he wrote,
“Mother, mother, even if it is a round strange thing, leave it alone until I get there. Even if it has a harelip and no eyes or nose, leave it alone until I get there.”
(...) [the mailman] came down [from Seoul] and again fell asleep at the tavern. (...) The tavern owner went through his things again [and rewrote the letter] (...)
“Oh mother, what do we do with a strange round thing? With no eyes or nose? Just get them out of there,” he wrote, and handed over the letter.
Letters are exchanged only between the husband and his parents, and the daughter-in-law has no say. In their own forum, she is spoken about and judged according to their own standards. A forum from which the person directly involved is excluded often gets distorted.In the end, the person who pushes the woman away to the edge, using the swapped letters as an excuse, is the mother-in-law who was once kind to her. If the first mother chops off her hands with the patriarch’s blade, the second mother pushes her and the newborn away using her son’s words. The network of language that they monopolize is an authority more powerful than a blade, so there is simply no need to see blood. Lethargy and silence could not protect the maiden.
“Walking and walking (...) she went to a spring (...)
She said, “I’m sorry, you’ve all come to get some water but would it be okay if you get me some first?”
“Oh no, you have such a beautiful baby and you’re a beauty yourself. But how come you don’t have any hands?” said one of the women at the spring. She then brought [the maiden] some water, fed the baby, and clothed it as well. Now she and other women left (...) so the maiden started walking again but thought that she wanted to go back to the spring and drink more water there (...) (While waiting for someone to come back), she fell into the water (...)Full-grown mushrooms were hanging down, so (...) she tried to grasp and pull and do whatever she could, but it was no use. ‘Oh no!’ she thought and the baby on her back was crying (...)”
Where the maiden revives is the loud and busy spring. The working women’s gazes are warm like a mother’s and their help is pragmatic. The maiden who has fallen into the cold water gets her senses back and reaches out fervently for the baby who fell in with her. She regains her motherhood and revives. She is the third mother of the story.
Meanwhile, her husband follows after his wife a bit too late. There’s also a version of the story in which he leaves behind his prestigious government post and becomes a taffy seller and finally recognizes his changed wife after many years of wandering around. In it, the maiden accepts her husband—who gave up everything to find her—as her child’s father and lives happily ever after. She holds hands with the women at the spring, she stretches out her hands toward them, and she will continue the history of motherhood in a different way.
[About the Writer] Jo-won Shim has been working as a children’s books author and editor for over two decades. These days she’s so fascinated with classics and ancient stories that she doesn’t even realize she’s getting old. She’s a member of the ancient story study club “Red Bean Porridge Grandma.”
Translated by: Seung-a Han
Published: May 8, 2022
*Original article: https://www.ildaro.com/9340
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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